Mountain People

"Mountain People"
By George "Sonny" Hoffman

Montagnard (mountain yard) is a French word meaning mountain people. Yard is an American term meaning Montagnard. Yard is a term of endearment.

The mountain tribes people of Southeast Asia do not look Oriental. Most look Polynesian, and their language sounds more Polynesian than Oriental. They are the locals; the Vietnamese are the new kids on the block. The Yards viewed the arrival of Orientals much as the American Indian viewed the arrival of white men.

Yards live in tribal groups. Over twenty tribes wander the mountains of Southeast Asia. The Rhade, Sedang, Jarai, Koho, Bru, Bahnar and Raglai are indigenous to South Vietnam. They are primarily nomadic, and practice slash and burn agriculture. They also hunt with crossbows and forage the jungle. The OSS recognized the utility of using the mountain tribes to help the French fight the Japanese. The CIA saw them as a useful group to aid the French against the Viet Minh.

The Vietnamese had little contact with the tribes until President Diem decided to move settlers into the highlands. The neighborhood has not been the same since.

Little love is lost between these two peoples--the mountain people and the valley people. When Special Forces teams began arriving in the late fifties, they immediately saw the utility of turning this hostility to serve the needs of counter insurgency.

The Americans discovered that Yards needed little inducement. It was enough to say, "We'll show you how to kill lots of Vietnamese." The challenge then became keeping the Yards pointed north.

Yards took an instant liking to the big white men in the funny green hats. They reminded them of the French. The few Frenchmen that made contact with Yards did right by them. There were missionaries that made few converts but did good works in the attempt. French social workers and anthropologists gave without taking and treated Yards as human beings. Yards never forgot.

We in the Special Forces inherited that legacy of good will and harnessed it. Special Forces men are good at that. Over the years, a special bond grew between these disparate people: the U.S. Army Special Forces and the Yards of Southeast Asia.

I never met a Yard I didn't like or one that did not offer me unqualified friendship. Yards gave their lives to save Green Berets; Green Berets did likewise. The war that began as a clash of ideologies soon transformed into a mutual struggle for survival. It was us against them, and the them was not always the little commie bastards; the us was not always the U.S. and its allies.

I arrived in Vietnam eager to meet my first Yards. We had heard so much about them during our long training. The first ones I met were the Yards of the 5th Mobile Strike Force (the MIKE Force). The MIKE Force was SF's answer to providing a quick reaction force to protect besieged camps.

While awaiting orders for my team assignment in Nha Trang, I watched from the roadside as groups of MIKE Force strikers wandered to and from town. They wore brightly-colored cavalry scarves, cowboy hats, and some wore cowboy boots with their tiger stripe uniforms. They had bracelets and beads, and medicine packets worn on leather string necklaces. They reminded me of small American Indians. They looked tough but horsed around like juveniles. Yards smile when they aren't laughing.

As an assignment, I drew a camp with just a small contingent of Yards. This was a let down, but some Yards is better than no Yards. Camp Trung Dung, A-502, had a platoon of Koho Yards from the small village of Cai Cai. They did not look as tough as the Rhade and Jurai MIKE Force strikers from the Central Highlands, but they still had that playful Yard smile and disposition.

The team sergeant, Top Kemner, introduced me to *my* Yards. I was thrilled. I had my own Yards: Danny and Joey. As Top explained, "One to walk in front and one behind."

I said, "Great! I have a front yard and a back yard and no house." Master Sergeant Kemner was not amused, but my front and back yards were smiling.

Top left us alone to get acquainted. He had already given them my rank and last name, but I wanted to be on a first name basis. I also wanted to lose the Sonny nickname and go by my given name, George. The only man from Training Group to accompany me to A-502 was Don Bemis. Earlier, I took him aside and begged him not to call me Sonny any longer. He agreed.

I told my Yards, "Call me George. You, Danny. You, Joey. Me, George." The smiles left their faces as they earnestly tried to say George. They gummed it, masticated it, and tongue wrestled it. They did everything their teeth, lips, and tongues could do with sound, but nothing close to George emerged. I worked with their enunciation until I became convinced that mountain people can't say George. In resignation, I said, "Can you say, Sonny?"

They had no trouble saying Sonny; in fact, they said it better than my grandmother. Reluctantly, I said, "You, Danny. You, Joey. Me, Sonny."

Their two faces lit up like high beams on a Buick. Danny said, "You name Sonny?"

"Yes, me name Sonny. Sonny, George, same same." They laughed, slapped each other, did a dance, slapped me, did more dancing, squeezed my arms, patted my chest, laughed some more, and Joey said, "Y [pronounced Eee] Sonny Eban," and that started them off again. I was not amused, but they did seem pleased, so I went along.

One of the team members came over and said, "Hoffman, don't talk that pigeon shit to the Yards. They speak in simple nouns and verbs. You just talk slow and normal, they'll pick out the nouns and verbs." He then addressed my Yards, saying, "When you two clowns get through playing grab ass, take him to meet Bru, then show him where the mortar pits are."

I suppose what the Yards heard was "You take, meet Bru, show mortar pit." At any rate, they nodded and Danny said, while patting my arm, "Y Sonny Eban took na bra."

"Yeah, he's real pretty, now do what I told you or I'll make book ends out of you two." They laughed. I was stunned that he would talk to Yards this way, *my* Yards especially. The Yards loved it.

Playful banter between the Americans and Yards marked their relationship. This same banter did not work with the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese were sensitive and quick to take offense. You really had to be on intimate terms to get away with joking banter with a Vietnamese man. You could not get on intimate terms with a Vietnamese woman unless she had a price tag on her behind. With Yard men, it was instant familiarity. Yard women were a little more reserved and had no price tags. Though many went around topless, we could banter but not touch.

Danny and Joey took my hands and drew me along to the Yard hooch where a dozen or so other Yards lounged about. They introduced me as Y Sonny Eban and I endured another embarrassing display of Yard familiarity and affection. They roasted me with warmth and basted me with the term Y Sonny Eban. I never did learn what Y Sonny Eban meant, and I don't think the Lone Ranger ever found out what Kimo Sabe meant. Maybe we were both fortunate.

It took a while to adjust to the American/Yard relationship. Yards are a primitive, simple people. They are like all primitive people in that their lives are not complicated and their choices are few. Day to day survival is the driving force in their lives and forming close relationships help them do that. They have friends and they have enemies. They know good animals and bad animals, benevolent spirits and evil spirits, food that is good to eat and food that poisons. The Yard world has few shades of gray.

My grandmother on my father's side was a full-blooded Cherokee, born on the reservation at Pine Ridge, NC. Being part Cherokee has always been a source of pride. I have exaggerated my American Indian heritage and down-played the three-quarters of me that is German. I saw getting in tight with the Yards as getting in touch with my tribal roots.

In an attempt to further ingratiate myself with my little brown brothers, at the first opportunity, I pointed to the beaded bracelet worn on my left wrist and said, "Do you know Indian, American Indian?" I made a sign like shooting a bow and arrow, placed feather fingers up the back of my head, and made a stupid whooping sound by slapping my palm against my open mouth. When they showed signs of recognition, I said, "I am Cherokee Indian-- American Indian, same same Montagnard."

This went over like garnet toilet paper. Their attitude was one that basically said, "We'll overlook it, Mr. Eban, and we won't tell anybody, but you really should lose the beads. And please don't ever do that thing with your mouth again. It's a dead give away."

My first lesson was that Yards do not identify with American Indians; Yards are cowboys. The reason Yards identify with cowboys is because John Wayne is a cowboy, and John Wayne is a Yard. He accepted the bracelet of the Rhade in 1967. The movie industry helped further push the Yards into the cowboy camp. Westerns dominated the movies of the fifties and sixties. These westerns did not portray the American Indian as a noble savage. Cowboys, on the other hand, were super heroes--none more super than the Duke himself.

After the Duke starred in the Green Berets and accepted mem bership into the Rhade tribe by wearing their bracelet, it was a done deal. When the Yards saw the movie, and saw the Duke wearing their bracelet, he was elevated to the status of a God. VC were Indians. VC country was Indian country. The Duke hates Indians. Nuff said! I lost the beaded bracelet and took on the brass bracelet of the Koho. I became a cowboy.

I think the only reason the Yards fought on our side was so they could watch movies. Movies were everywhere in Vietnam. The smallest outpost had a projector and was on a distribution list. My fondest memories of Vietnam came from watching movies with the Yards, especially westerns. At A-502, we let them watch the movies with us in the team house.

I never saw people get so into a movie. Yards had difficulty separating real world from movie world. We had to frisk them for weapons prior to admitting them; otherwise, they'd shoot up the wall we projected the movie on trying to save the settlers from the circling redskins. Camps that couldn't or wouldn't want to disarm their Yards had to invent screens that would reflect light but allow bullets to pass through and go safely down range. Bed sheets or bleached mosquito netting stretched between poles over the concertina wire worked well. Some piled sand bags behind a plywood screen.

Yards would watch anything except love stories. I watched "2001: A Space Odyssey" with a group of Yards. They liked the opening monkey scene, but when people in funny suits began floating in the black void of deep space, the mountain people were totally lost. Try explaining inter-planetary physics and zero gravity to people who still think the Earth is flat and America is on the other shore of the big river. They kept asking, "Where monkey people go?"

On another occasion, we watched a very good going-back-in-time movie. The name escapes me, but this group of campers somehow got sent back to pre-historic times. I could not explain that either. The special effects of this movie were so real that it had me believing. When a huge pterodactyl swooped down and flew off with a kicking and screaming woman in its clutches, the Yards jus t about crapped in their loin cloths. Joey clung tightly to me. Danny tugged my sleeve, saying, "Sonny! You have same same in Unitie State?"

When the T-Rex crested the hill and stepped on a jeep, the Yards tore down the screen door to the team house making their egress. It took days to calm them and another cowboy movie to get them to come back.

The more I learned about Yards, the more they reminded me of little Cherokees. Their entire world was alive. Spirits dwelled in everything, including inanimate objects. Trees, mountains, streams, birds, snakes, and tigers all had souls the Yards could feel. Like Cherokees, they were part of the world they worshiped and that world had a plethora of taboos. One had to be aware of where one relieved one's self. The jungle was not one big outhouse. Pee on the wrong shrub and you could wind up with heart burn. Pee on a tiger, and you curse three generations--if you survive long enough to create them.

One unique feature of Yard philosophy was their respect for the religious beliefs of others. Most of our Yards wore Buddha medallions around their necks, though none were Buddhists. When I inquired about this, I got a puzzled look and he basically said, "How else would you ward off a Buddhist bullet?" I didn't have the heart to tell him that communists were atheists. Actually, I had the heart, I just couldn't figure out how to explain the Godless concept in a way that a Montagnard could comprehend. I got myself a little Buddha.

Not long after this encounter, I came across a group of our Yards taking pot shots at a cheap Buddha medallion hanging from a stump not thirty feet away. They weren't even hitting the stump. This worried me. Before each shot, they waved the bullet before the shooters Buddha and then chambered the round. After everyone tried several times each, I took the rifle, and leveled on the medal. One of the Yards stopped me, removed the bullet, passed it before my Buddha, then rechambered it. I shrugged, took aim, and blew the Buddha on the stump into tiny pieces. The Yard sitting to my left, rolled back with a groan as though he had been hit. I said, "What's with him?"

Another Yard looked at the remnant still hanging from the stump, shrugged, and said, "Now, he die!" Seems they had been testing the magic in each other's medallions. That marksmanship stunt cost me a ten dollar Buddha. We tested it. It was a good one. No one could hit it, not even me. The dead Yard returned to life when I hung it on his neck. He could return to the jungle with confidence.

Passing the bullet before the shooter's Buddha was to let the bullet know that the rifle's owner was a Buddhist. Bullets, I suppose, are pretty gullible. This may seem bizarre behavior for an adult. I thought so. Many years later, I watched Saturday morning cartoons with my kids. A cartoon bullet halted in mid- flight to read a sign held up by the intended target. It said, "He went thata way." The bullet then took a right turn to follow the arrow. Kids have no difficulty buying into the concept. An adult created that cartoon, and it's a fair guess he wasn't a Yard.

In many ways, adult Yards carry the child within them into adulthood. In many ways I envy them that faculty. Others found it anoying as hell. I've heard it said that, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, then you obviously have no idea how serious the situation really is." Yards were great at keeping their heads.

The jungle is where the Yards really shined. The jungle was home. Watching them operate in that environment was awe inspiring. They were so tuned-in to the sights and sounds that nothing got by them. They could tell if people were nearby-- hiding, moving, or sleeping--simply by the sounds the animals and insects made. While running recon missions with Yards, it was not uncommon for the point man to halt the patrol at a fork in the trail, listen, taste a leaf or two, then walk back and say while pointing out one trail, "We go, we die." A smart team leader would alter course. I was a smart team leader.

Along the way, I could see the Yards picking leaves, bugs, berries, and lizards from the jungle super market, stuffing the produce into a plastic bag or pocket. When we stopped, this all went into a rice bowl. They usually offered me some to be polite. To be polite, I usually accepted, then moved everything around in the bowl, taking nibbles of things I recognized while avoiding things that stared back or had a tail.

I decided to treat Danny and Joey to some real American food. I took them along on my next run to Nha Trang. There, we stopped at a Burger Bar/Dairy Queen. I bought them Cheeseburgers, French fries, and milk shakes. I then watched in bewilderment as they picked at their food, moving things about on the paper plate, leaving the burger patty, pickle, onions, and melted cheese on the plate. They liked bread and fries. They didn't know what to make of the milk shake. I was just glad I didn't order the pizza.

Other Americans had trouble differentiating Montagnards from Vietnamese. To them, they were all gooks, slopes, dinks, or zipper-heads. We stopped at the PX. Danny and Joey had to wait outside. On my return, I was met by an Air Force sergeant. He said, "Would you tell your gook friends to get their asses off my jeep." His error cost me the good conduct medal, but he learned a new word: Montagnard.

In short order, I became a Koho. In a ceremony like the blood brother ritual of the American Indian, I become bonded for life. They placed a brass bracelet on my right wrist with the markings of the Koho tribe and the band of Cai Cai. We drank rice wine and they christened me Y Sonny Eban. The bracelet was never to come off. I swore it would not.

John Wayne and hundreds of SF troops underwent similar ceremonies. They became Bru, Jarai, Koho, Rhade, Bahnar, or Sedang. John Wayne took his vow seriously. In every movie after the Green Berets, you can see his bracelet. From True Grit to The Shootist, the Duke was a Rhade. I understand, he wore it to his grave.

I brought two bracelets home from the war and initiated my two sisters--complete with the wine ceremony. I told them all about the Koho, about their beliefs and philosophies. I made them Kohos. One sister wore her bracelet until 1988 when it was removed by a nurse prior to surgery. The other has never had hers off. When Saigon fell in April of 1975, I was a Sergeant with the Wolfhounds of the 25th Infantry Division, part of Operation New Life. I met the refugees on Guam as an interpreter for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). I met over 100,000 Vietnamese, but only one Yard made it out. He told me a grim tale of genocide against the helpless, friendless Montagnards. Some Yards, like the Bru of northern I Corps, worked with the communists and were left alone. Other tribes slipped across the borders. The Koho had not aided the communists and were not near a border. I had an ache deep in my soul and constantly fondled my bracelet.

My bracelet came off on January 21, 1977. I taught demolitions at the 25th Division Recondo School. I pulled the pin on a qua rter-pound block of TNT. The twenty-second delay malfunctioned. It exploded in my right hand, taking the arm at mid-forearm. T he bracelet went with it. Two weeks later, after I could talk, my commanding officer--Lt. Colonel Sedgwick--was the first to see me. He was a bit taken aback when my first words were, "Did anyone find my bracelet?"

After I explained how much it meant to me, he organized the Recondo students and cadre in a shoulder to shoulder sweep of the demolitions range. Although they found pieces of bone from my arm, no trace of the bracelet was found. I have this nagging feeling that the last Koho died on January 21, 1977.

Copyright: 1994 By SSG George "Sonny" Hoffman

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